Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

I keep hoping for the best. Friends – otherwise kind, intelligent human beings – love Joanna Newsom. “She’s a poet,” they tell me. “She writes beautifully.” They swoon over every plucked harp string, every alliterative allusion to laudable literature. And so I listen. Joanna has a new album out today called Have One On Me. In reality, one can have three on her, for lo, this is a triple album, more than two hours of poetry.

In the past, I’ve had a couple problems with Joanna. One, she sounds like Olive Oyl, Popeye’s beloved. It’s a substantial handicap, but it’s not insurmountable. Goofy Victoria Williams also sounds like Olive Oyl, and I like Victoria, mainly because she’s genuinely wacky and because she doesn’t take herself particularly seriously. Two, the poetry. Yeah, I know. Joanna’s a serious artist, and an aversion to her poetry is some fairly damning evidence that this man ain’t got no cultchah. Still, I struggle. There is, for instance, this:

dig a little hole, not three inches round
spit your pit in the hole in the ground
weep upon the spot for the starving of me!
till up grow a fine young cherry tree

This results in the mirth of me! I can’t help it. I’m sorry, friends.

“You need to try again,” my friends tell me. “You haven’t given her a fair chance.” Okay. They tell me that this new album is more approachable, less precocious. The childlike shriek is gone, and the lyrics are more straightforward. And so I listened. Here, for instance, are the lyrics to the title track:

From the courtyard, I floated in
and watched it go down.
Heard the cup drop;
thought, "Well,
that's why they keep them around.
"The blackguard sat hard, down,
with no head on him now,
and I felt so bad,
cause I didn't know how
to feel bad enough
to make him proud.

By the time you read this,
I will be so far away.
Daddy longlegs, how in the world
am I to be expected to stay?
In the night--
in the night, you may hear me call
Pa, stay your hand
and steel your resolve.
Stay where you are,
so long and tall.

Here's Lola--ta da!--to do
her famous Spider Dance for you!
Lighten up your pockets!
Shake her skirts and scatter, there,
a shrieking, six-legged millionaire
with a blight in his sockets.

Miss Montez,
the Countess of Lansfeld,
appealed to the King of Bavaria,
saying, "Pretty papa,
if you are my friend--
mister daddy longlegs, they are at it again!--
Can I see you?"

Poor Lola! A tarantula's mounting
Countess Lansfeld's handsome brassiere,
while they all cheer.
And the old king fell from grace,
while Lola fled,
To save face and her career

You caught a fly, floating by,
Wait for him to drown in the dust;
drown in the dust of other flies,
whereby the machine is run,
and the deed is done.
Heaven has no word
for the way you and your friends
have treated poor Louis.
May god save your poor soul, Lola.
(But there is nothing I adore,
apart from that whore's black heart.)

Well, doesn't that just beat all!
Miss Gilbert,
called to Castlemaine
by the silver dollar and the gold glitter!
Well, I've seen lots,
but never, in a million years,
would think to see you, here.

Though the long road
begins and ends with you,
I cannot seem to make amends
with you, Louis.
When we go out,
they're bound to see you with me.

At night, I walk in the park,
with a whip,
between the lines
of the whispering Jesuits,
who are poisoning you against me.
There's a big black spider
hanging over my door.
Can't go anywhere, anymore.
Tell me, are you with me?

I called to you, several times,
while the change took place
and then arrived, all night,
and I died.
But all these songs,
when you and I are long gone,
will carry on.
Mud in your eye.

You asked my hand,
hired a band.
"In your heart is all that you need;
ask and you will receive," it is said.
I threw my bouquet,
and I knocked 'em dead.

Bottle of white, bottle of red.
Helpless as a child,
when you held me in your arms,
and I knew that no other
could ever love me as you loved.
But help me! I'm leaving!

I remember everything,
down to the sound of you shaving--
the scrape of your razor,
the dully-abrading black hair
that remained
when you clutched at me,
that night I came upstairs, half-dead,
and, in your kindness,
you put me straightaway
in the cupboard,
with a bottle of champagne,
and then, later, on a train.

It was dark out, I was half-dead.
I saw a star fall into the sky,
like a chunk of thrown coal,
as if god himself spat
like a cornered rat.

I really want you to do this for me,
will you have one on me?

It was dark; I was drunk and half-dead,
and we slept, knocking heads,
sitting up in the star-smoking air,
knocking heads like buoys.

Don't you worry for me!
Have one on me!

Meanwhile, I will raise my own glass
to how you made me fast
and expendable,
and I will drink to your excellent health,
and your cruelty.
Will you have one on me?

--helpless as a child,
when you held me in your arms,
and I knew that no other
could ever love me--

From the courtyard, I floated in
and watched it go down.
Heard the cup drop;
thought, "Well, that's why
they keep them around."
The blackguard sat hard, down,
with no head on him now,
and I felt so bad,
cause I didn't know how
to feel bad enough
to make him proud.

Well daddy longlegs, are you?
Daddy longlegs, are you?
Daddy longlegs, are you proud?

Ah. And now I see. At last, after much time has passed, I am converted. And in my newfound ardor, I offer a review of Joanna’s new album in the form of a poem, my own humble offering to she who is better than me, or thee, Louis.

For Joanna, A Lachrymose Lament

From the basement
The sump pump gave out.
Drowned, and gave no sound
The February snow, upon the ground
Melted did not.
I listened to Joanna’s album.

By the time I listen to all three CDs
‘Twill be afternoon
The voice, a gentler croon
Doth assuage my fears
The rent, still in arrears
Will not be paid to you, Montesquieu!

Who am I?
You have wronged me, O Henry,
Just as you did when we
Sailed to Capri, you with your sari,
(Whose sari now?)
I with my sarongs,
I’m sorry, back to the songs.

I remember everything,
And nothing!
The sound of your snoring
The nights of your whoring
And me, sadly imploring
For you to shit or get off the pot!
We were sailing a lot,
In those days.
Buoys will be buoys.

Who am I?
Am I real at all?
I drift in the spell of your siren call
Myrmidons and cupcakes
Visigoths and clambakes!
I forget my identity
All, all too easily
But I bet I’m a man
And so is Lola
L-O-L-A Lola!

Meanwhile, I will change the CD
Get up, drink to your excellent health,
Remember Myrna, Merlot, Massachusetts,
And the magnificent musk of marinated mutton.

For the love of God, Montresor!
Shiver me timbers
The fire’s bright embers
Have faded in the fireplace!
‘Tis now time for the showering of me
For off to work I must be
But a magical musical time was had by all
And by all I mean me
And Lola.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Roots Roundup - Kasey Anderson, The Holmes Brothers, Guitar Shorty, Theodore, The Unwanted

Five reasons to feel good about the new year.

Kasey Anderson – Nowhere Nights

First the bad news: Kasey Anderson doesn’t do anything Steve Earle hasn’t been doing for thirty years. Now, the good news: for most of the past decade, Kasey Anderson has been doing it better than Steve Earle, and his fifth album Nowhere Nights does nothing to diminish his growing reputation. Kasey‘s sound has evolved a bit, and understated strings pop up now and again to sweeten the usual alt-country instrumentation. But Kasey is the star here, and his straightforward narrative songwriting slots nicely into the hallowed Townes Van Zant/Steve Earle/Guy Clark Texas tradition. The 11 tracks are fairly evenly divided between sadsack acoustic ballads and rootsy bar band rockers. “You always said you were a hopeless romantic,” Kasey sings in his best raspy drawl. “Well, here’s all that hopeless romance you said you were waitin’ for.” It’s a line for a hardcore troubadour, and Kasey fits the boots.

The Holmes Brothers—Feed My Soul

The Holmes Brothers – Wendell and Sherman, and honorary brother Popsy Dixon – have been serving up a gumbo of gospel, blues, country, funk, reggae, roots rock, and soul for more than thirty years. 2007’s State of Grace brought them an expanded audience, and new album Feed My Soul is likely to build upon previous triumphs. The NPR-ready guest list featuring Joan Osborne, Catherine Russell, and members of Ollabelle can’t hurt. But the reason to listen, as always, is the superb singing from the brothers, real and honorary, ranging from Wendell’s superb falsetto pleading on the title track to Popsy’s soaring lead vocals on the unadulterated gospel of “Take Me Away” to Sherman’s soulful melismas on the tender ballad “I Saw Your Face.” As always, the brothers mix fine originals with an exquisite choice in covers – this time The Beatles’ chiming “I’ll Be Back” and the swooning doo-wop of Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love.” The originals, highlighted by Wendell’s agonized “Fair Weather Friend,” which recounts his recent battle with cancer, are raucous, joyful, sorrowful, lusty, and reverent. They cover the gamut of real life, and they do so with honesty, pathos, and humor. Utterly uncategorizable except for the honesty and the heart, it’s best to simply call Feed My Soul great.

Guitar Shorty – Bare Knuckle

Seventy-year-old Guitar Shorty (nee David Kearney) is one of the last of a dying breed. He recorded his first album thirty years after he’d been playing with Little Richard, Willie Dixon, Sam Cooke, and Ray Charles. In between he worked as a mechanic in L.A., married Jimi Hendrix’s sister, and jammed on the weekends with half the musical royalty of that very musical city. He’s as great a blues guitarist as Buddy Guy (better, really, because Buddy’s been showboating and living off his deserved reputation for a long, long time now), but he’s not nearly as well known, and his latest album probably won’t change that perception. But it’s another great blues record, one in an ongoing series, and if you love to hear stinging blues guitar in the tradition of Albert King, Lonnie Mack, or Stevie Ray Vaughan, you can hardly do better. There are lyrics here, of course. ‘Please, Mr. President, lay some stimulus on me” is one. You get the idea. But however timely or well-intentioned they may be, one doesn’t really listen to Guitar Shorty for the lyrics. He’s called Guitar Shorty for a reason. He’s a guitar god, and he simply unleashes one great solo after another.

Theodore – Hold You Like a Lover

St. Louis cowpunks Theodore ply familiar Neil Young Harvest territory on their debut album, with harmonica and lonesome pedal steel featured prominently. Lead singer/songwriter Justin Kinkel-Schuster has Young’s nasal tenor and Ryan Adams’ world-weary sigh, and he can write an engaging tale of down-and-out losers. He’s particularly effective on the eerie and unsettling “Death’s Head,” an epic track which starts off as a Country Goth funeral dirge and ends up as a sort of sci-fi freakout, complete with distorted feedback and ‘50s B-movie spaceship sound effects courtesy of the theremin. But the real highlight here is the way the horns weave in and out of the dusty proceedings, adding a sort of dissolute Salvation Army Band counterpoint to the expected country-folk fare. This is a decent alt-country debut made far more intriguing by the unusual instrumentation.

The Unwanted – Music From the Atlantic Fringe

It’s not exactly a novel approach; fusing the traditional folk songs of the Auld Country with the plaintive string music of the Appalachians. After all, this is music that shares common roots, and many musicians – most notably, The Chieftains – have explored the relationships between the hollers and the Dublin pubs. But the trio of musicians who make up The Unwanted – two from County Sligo, one from California – find new and unexpected connections that make Music From the Atlantic Fringe a delight. Consider the opening track, a spirited cover of Leadbelly’s “Out on the Western Plains” that inexorably morphs into a four-part reel. The songs are split evenly between Old and New Worlds, but the real treasures come from the Old, with Sligo tenor Seamus O’Dowd unveiling a mournful brogue, which he displays in all its soulful glory on ballads “The Diamantina Drover” and “Turn the Corner.”

Friday, February 12, 2010


Enough of this President's Day nonsense. Today is Abe Lincoln's birthday. Only Abe's. Not George's. I admire Abe more than just about any other human being. Here is one thing he said:

The true rule, in determining to embrace or reject any thing, is not whether it has any evil in it; but whether it has more of evil than of good. There are few things wholly evil or wholly good. Almost every thing is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.

I think about this every time I accidentally stumble upon some professional media agitator or politician fulminating on the horrors of our modern times, wherein some socialistic furriner will set up death camps and make us all wear "666" stamps on our foreheads before we are systematically executed. Or something. Abe's thinking suggests that such binary moralism is misplaced. But it is what currently drives American politics. I suspect Abe would look around and be shocked, and saddened. Since he's not here, I'll try to do it for him.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Prayer: A Personal History

I prayed the rosary as a kid. The rosary, for those who may not know, is a modified necklace of sorts. But instead of wearing the beads around one’s neck, one holds it in hand and pauses at each of the beads and prays a prayer. There’s a crucifix at the end of the necklace, and the prayer associated with the crucifix was called The Apostle’s Creed, a long recital of basic Christian doctrine. There then followed an Our Father, three Hail Marys, a Glory Be, another Our Father, and then the grueling grind: a Glory Be followed by ten Hail Marys, with that pattern repeating another four times.

These prayers – the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Apostle’s Creed – were prayers that had been prayed by Christians for a couple thousand years. Mary gets about ten times the prayer focus as God the Father or Jesus – a problem in Protestant circles – but at the time, as a child, I didn’t think too much about it. All I knew was that after months, perhaps years, of intense practice, I had knocked down my rosary time from an excruciating half hour to just over fifteen minutes. I could zip through the rosary like nobody’s business.

I had good teachers. Father Soltis, our parish priest, could power through the 6:30 a.m. Mass in just over 20 minutes. He was an absolute speed demon, although “demon” is perhaps the wrong word to use given the context. But there were only about three old women in the pews, and they were only half there mentally anyway, so I don’t think Father Soltis had much compunction about finishing as quickly as possible and heading back to bed. I served as an altar boy at a lot of those Masses, and rang the bells whenever he lifted the Host over his head. At one point he told me to 1) not ring the bells so loudly, and 2) not ring the bells for so long. His advice probably cut another five seconds off the total Mass time.

The lesson that I took away from all this was that prayer and worship were obligations that one hustled through as quickly as possible. By about fourteen I had figured out that I could save even more time if I ignored them altogether. So I did.

In college, as a young, Born Again Jesus Freak, decidedly of the Protestant Persuasion, I learned that prayer was simply conversing with God. One didn’t need rote, flowery prayers, and God probably didn’t like them anyway. One didn’t approach one’s best friend and recite Shakespearian sonnets; why should one do that with one’s Cosmic Buddy? I started attending prayer meetings – furtive little gatherings in dorm rooms and off-campus apartments where people sat on the floor in a circle and said things like, “Lord, we just want to praise you. Yes, Jesus, yes.” It was simply conversing with God all right, but it was all kind of boring. If I was God, I would have been mildly freaked out by it, and I certainly wouldn’t have gone out of my way to hang out with these people. I’d have looked for excuses to take in a comparative religions class or a Quaker meeting or something.

But one of the lessons that stayed with me from that era was that it was imperative to have a Quiet Time. A Quiet Time was a daily time – usually first thing in the morning -- of prayer, meditation, Bible study, and worship. Since the worship, in true Jesus Freak fashion, could sometimes get fairly loud and rowdy, it was actually a bit of a misnomer, but the basic idea was that one needed regular, daily time with God; time to center one’s thoughts and attitudes, to reorient one’s life, to grow in knowledge and wisdom, to pray for your needs and the needs of others, to honor and praise God, to remember who He was and who you, with a small Y, were and were not. To this day I think it’s a perfectly decent notion.

The thing that derailed all these wonderful plans was called Sin. I wasn’t very good at Quiet Time. Here’s a little-acknowledged fact: when you’re a screwup, and you don’t know how not to be a screwup, you don’t particularly want to spend time with God. I know, I know. That’s what repentance is for. You screw up, and you confess your sin, and God forgives you and you move on. But here’s the deal: repentance implies that you want to change. And my own experience was that it wasn’t that simple. I was dealing with habitual, nay, addictive sin in my life. Part of me desperately wanted to change. Part of me wanted to be left alone to wallow in my sin. Part of me was scared to death to change. Part of me was scared to death not to change. Welcome to the wonderful world of addiction. It’s fun for you and the whole family.

In such an environment, the notion of Quiet Time was supremely threatening. I’ll let God sort out the theological and salvific implications of all that, although you’re welcome to give it a go. Others have. My own belief is that I was a Christian, and a lousy, ineffective, hypocritical one. I know that I prayed during those years – and yes, they were years – and that sometimes I prayed fervently. Often my prayers were of the “oh shit, help me” variety. But I didn’t really want to spend time with God. I didn’t want to come face to face with God, and I didn’t want to come face to face with myself, with the person I’d become.

These days I’m a screwup who tries to spend a lot of time with God. I don’t have a Quiet Time. I have a number of times during the day when I stop, shut up, try to focus, and pray flowery, rote prayers that the Church has prayed for a couple thousand years. I pray the Divine Hours, the same prayers that monks in monasteries all over the world pray. I’m not a monk, and life happens and I can’t always stop a 2:00 p.m. work meeting so I can step away and pray. So I pick up at 5:00 and pray those prayers, and move on. I don’t worry about it. But at regular intervals throughout the day, I stop, focus, re-orient myself, and am blessed by the words of others, who help me recall what it is I believe, and why.

Here is a prayer that I prayed this morning, shortly after rising:

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

I think that’s a pretty good prayer, and when I think about it, focus on it, align my thoughts and my will with what is being expressed, it becomes my prayer as well. There’s nothing flowery or rote about it. It’s what I desire. I need help to achieve it. Help me, O God.

I am still undoing, and God is still undoing, the lessons I learned as a child. I don’t have to hurry. I don’t have to escape. I can sit, in all my discomfort and malaise, before a God who loves me. Help me not to sin involuntarily. Hell, help me not to sin voluntarily, and to wish for the painful death of the smug asshole who …. Oh, help me, God.

I actually pray this way. The sins of omission are important, and I’d like to think that I’ll get to them. But for now, I’ll settle for not blatantly, deliberately sinning. Help me, God.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

An Open Letter to Prospective Music Critics

On Saturday I’ll be participating in a panel discussion at Ohio University, meeting with the journalism students who want to pursue a career in music writing. I’ll try not to roll my eyes at them. They’ll try not to roll their eyes at me, a Dick-Cheney-like being who fancies himself semi-hip, even with a hearing aid. We are all deluded. I’ll probably be polite and encouraging. God knows the poor, deluded kids need all the encouragement they can get, with their bleak decades of barista duty at Starbucks still ahead of them. So I probably won’t say any of this. But here’s what I’d like to say.

Dear Crazy Kids,

You will earn more money by creatively mouthing the words “Would you like fries with that?” than you will as a music critic. If you are pursuing a career in music journalism thinking that you will actually have a career in music journalism, think again. You probably will not. You might get lucky, but the odds are heavily stacked against you. Approximately 8 people in the world have careers in music journalism. Usually they run their own magazines or websites. Usually they are poor, but they manage to get by. The rest of you will do something else to earn money. You might want to think about what that will be.

I don’t want to discourage you. There is such a thing as a big break. Some of you may actually write for well-known magazines or websites some day. And that’s wonderful. But there is no money. There is less and less money every day, and the people who control the money in our society tend to think of music writing as equivalent to typing. It’s just moving your fingers. You will earn more money by moving your fingers over the Latte and Mocha buttons at Starbucks.

There are other advantages. As a music writer you will receive a lot of free music. On the other hand, most of you have probably figured out that you can receive a lot of free music whenever you want, regardless of your career path. If that’s not enough of an incentive, know that you will also receive free tickets to concerts, occasional backstage passes, and access to some of your favorite musicians and bands. And that’s all great fun. But without a backup plan, you will be having great fun in your parents’ basement when you are 30 years old.

That’s the truth. So figure out another way to earn money.

That said, I want to encourage you to write about music. But only if you love music, and if you love writing. If you can’t help yourself, then have at it. Music writing will be a source of great joy. Many days you will feel fulfilled, knowing that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. Occasionally you will have those ecstatic moments where you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that you’ve nailed it, that you’ve said something as well as it can possibly be said. And most days it will just feel like work, and it will be hard, but do it anyway, because it’s what you’re supposed to do. If that’s you – if you recognize yourself in that description – then write about music. Write about what you love, and don’t worry about the compensation. You’ll probably be doing it at inconvenient times – when you’re already worn out from your so-called “real” job, when you’re tired, during evenings, on weekends – and you’ll never regret it.

Best of luck, kids.


Andrew J. Whitman

Bitter? Maybe a little. But happy, too. I get to do what I love, and some people care about that. Not everyone can say that. And the only Java I’m dealing with these days is a programming language. It doesn’t taste as good, but it pays better than Starbucks.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Grammys vs. Oscars?

It's award season again. And so I'm wondering. This is really a question for people who are both music fanatics and movie fanatics; more specifically, music snobs and movie snobs. I know you're out there. Represent.

There is a certain contingent of music fans -- let's call them "discerning" as a convenient and/or infuriating label -- who don't bother with the Grammy Awards. They know that there's really nothing to see, or hear, and that the so-called "best" music that wins the flashy awards is nothing but the big-label fat cats congratulating themselves on an increasingly irrelevant phenomenon. The movie equivalent would be films such as The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel winning Oscar after Oscar.

In truth, the Grammys do recognize some worthwhile music. But those are the smalltime awards for categories such as Best Traditional Blues Album and Best Boxed or Limited Edition Package. By the time we hit the big Sir Elton John/Lady Gaga duets at 8:00, those awards are long past.

So my question, for you movie snobs, is whether you view the Oscars in a similar way. Do the Oscars represent the artistic pinnacle of moviemaking? Do they reward worthy films? Are they a waste of time? Somewhere in between?

My guess is that true film buffs view the Oscars a little more kindly than music snobs view the Grammys, primarily because there are fewer films on which to focus, and it's a little more difficult for truly worthwhile films to pass under the radar. But I could be wrong. I'd like to hear from you.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Scout Niblett -- The Calcination of Scout Niblett

When you employ Tibetan singing bowl as a lead instrument, and when your drumming makes Meg White sound like Art Blakey, there is a chance that you will never duet with Beyonce on the Grammy Awards. So don’t look for Scout Niblett to show up on your TV screen anytime soon.

In a world where “weird” is defined as smearing your face with eyeshadow (see Lady Gaga on the aforementioned Grammy Awards for reference), Scout Niblett is a whole different kind of weird. For lack of a better label, think of her as Sad Weird. Or maybe just Sad. When she isn't wearing one of her cheap, gaudy wigs (okay, that in itself is odd), Scout looks relatively normal; the girl-next-door waif who could be working behind the counter at 7-11 in an alternative life. But then she opens her mouth:

Why would you think that you make me drink?
I'm a drunk, reasons I don't need
Just like you
And I'd be in my car if I weren't in this bar
Taking pills
Take my keys
I might drive me to Mexico

When you accompany that with an overdriven electric guitar and an off-key banshee wail, you end up with a sort of Grunge Dark Night of the Soul, and the resulting philosophical and musical tsunami can leave you breathless. Think too much about it, and it might actually keep you awake at night.

Scout’s latest album is called The Calcination of Scout Niblett, “calcination” in this case referring to the chemical process by which metals are refined and purified. Yes, there are spiritual overtones to the metaphor, and Scout plunges headfirst into the fray, engaging in the kind of incriminating self doubt and confessional malaise that has characterized poetic navel gazers from Joni Mitchell to Jolie Holland. But there's nothing pretty or precious about the music. What it sounds like is a suicide note from a Mississippi Delta juke joint, distorted guitar crackling through a cheap amp, and it's a uniquely and sadly harrowing listening experience.

I don't like this album. But I can't stop listening to it. It's the musical equivalent of driving by a six-car pileup on the freeway.

Perhaps there's hope. I would like to think so. There is, for instance, this:

Welcome to my self-made sweat box
This is where I take it all off
I've got to sweat it out,
I'll cook those monsters out
I'm not coming out of here until my soul appears

However long it takes, babe. Just come out.

The rawness of the music fully matches the rawness of the words. "Cherry Cheek Bomb" starts with a proto-Led-Zep guitar riff that is equal parts Jimmy Page and Son House. On the epic finale "Meet and Greet," an incredibly weary recapitulation of life on the road, night after night, Scout recounts meeting a fan who asks, "Hey, when you gonna learn to play that thing?". She answers the question with a guitar solo that doesn't so much build as erupt, a great, squalling splat of noise that serves as a giant Fuck You to the world. I can only hope that it isn't meant too literally. This woman needs to keep making music, and you need to hear her.